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Blood test can detect cancer PDF Print Email
British scientists have developed a simple blood test that can detect a cancer before a tumour has formed.  It has been described as offering a ‘paradigm shift’ in diagnosing cancer and is due to be introduced early next year.
This is the first test to accurately identify the signals sent out by a person’s immune system as a cancer begins.  It appears from research that these signals can be detected up to five years before a tumour is noticeable, giving doctors the chance to intervene at the earliest moment when a solid tumour appears, a huge help in improving the outcome.
The test was initially designed for lung cancer and scientists described it as a way to improve the country’s poor record of early diagnosis and disease survival compared to most other European countries.  Detection of lung or pancreas cancer is often so late that there is little that can be done except confirm the approach of death.
The likeliest reason for treatment is when physical symptoms are noticeable and these often don’t appear until two thirds of the way through the cancer’s development.  With lung cancer the tumour can already be the size of a tennis ball by this time.  Even with early screening detection the cancer is only picked up after more than 20 cell divisions, while death normally comes after about 40.
The new test was developed after 15 years of research by clinicians in Nottingham, and in Kansas, and is due to be introduced in America later this month.  To begin with it will be used to screen smokers at high risk of lung cancer, alongside normal screening.
University of Nottingham scientists developed the technology which works by identifying how the immune system responds to the first signs of cancer development.  Research has shown that cancers involve unusual cells producing small amounts of antigens – a protein material.  These prompt the immune system to react, producing large amounts of auto antibodies.
By following this activity, and identifying which combination of antigens shows the presence of a particular cancer, scientists have been able to devise a blood test which simply requires a small amount of blood from a patient (10ml).
The research was led by Professor John Robertson, a breast cancer specialist, who said that it proved that accurate identification of auto antibodies caused by antigens, and the cancer they represented, could be transformed into a simple test.  They have begun work on a breast cancer blood test.  He said that the technology should improve significantly the detection of 90 per cent of solid cancers.
“The earliest cancer we have seen is a cancer that has been screen detected, and yet biologically that’s late in the road of cancer development,” he said.
“We are starting to understand carcinogenesis in a way that we have never seen before — seeing which proteins are going wrong, and how the immune system responds. It’s as if your body is shouting ‘I’ve got cancer’ way before a tumour can be detected.”
More than 8,000 individuals were involved with the research in Britain and America and the technology is due to be presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference next week, in Chicago.
The test costs £300 and is being trialled on smokers in the US by respiratory specialists and GP’s.  In many cases it either confirmed suspicions of a cancer, or prompted surgical intervention where it was previously thought to be benign.
According to Geoffrey Hamilton-Fairley, executive chairman of Oncimmune, the company responsible for development, the test, known as EarlyCDT-Lung, would be available from early 2011 in Britain.  Initially it will be supplied to private healthcare groups — at a cost similar to the US rate.
The national clinical director for cancer, Professor Sir Mike Richards, has already held meetings to discuss the test and described it as “a very exciting concept” with the potential to improve Britain’s poor cancer survival rates.  Professor Richards also said that it would require large-scale randomised trials to prove its benefits across the populations for use on the NHS.
“Now that the test is shortly to become available [privately] we have to think about doing a wider programme to show that it can save the lives, as we hope it might.”